Beyond the Red Doors
What could being church look like, post COVID-19?
In the many months before our core team of passionate Episcopalians and Lutherans launched Christ’s Beloved Community/Comunidad Amada de Cristo in Southside Winston-Salem, NC, we had a thriving ministry, knocking on the doors of our neighbors’ homes and apartments. We did this near the church building that would eventually become our church’s home, as well as in the surrounding area, which included Section 8 housing, gas stations, tiendas, laundromats, street corners and more. We literally started our faith community outside, sparking relationships with people on their porches and front lawns and in their neighborhoods and stores.
One day, a couple of us knocked on the door of a modest home near the church building. A man answered, and we introduced ourselves as people creating a new church. We said that we would be his new neighbors and asked if there was any particular way we could be a blessing to his household or to his neighborhood? He thought for a minute and said, “I don’t know what to say.”
I was afraid that perhaps I had put him on the spot. I said, “Don’t worry! Would you be willing to think about it and maybe I will see you again out and about?”
He was silent for a longer amount of time. I could see his eyes watering up. “No, I mean…I don’t know what to say. You see, I grew up as a military kid. I moved more times than I can count growing up. I have lived all over this country. And everywhere we lived, we always lived right near a church. And not once did any church knock on our door to say ‘hi’ or to ask how they could help us, or even to welcome us…. I just don’t know what to say.”
By this time, this large man’s eyes were brimming with tears. He had said more than enough, and, surprisingly, I learned that we had done enough. By simply showing up, we had been enough. And that was more important than anything we would do. This was one of many holy encounters we would have and continue to have on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Southside Winston-Salem. It impressed upon us the importance of simply meeting our neighbors and learning what God was doing in their lives and then joining alongside that.
Being church in a new way
I confess: I have long been an advocate for congregations to discover anew what it could look like to be church outside of a church building. But I would never have wished for it this way. I could never have imagined that a virus would be what showed the world that we are deeply interconnected. This has taken us all by surprise, and from what I see, many in the church have quickly moved to online worship services, Bible studies and pastoral care. Critical ministries, like our Beloved Community Food Pantry, are able to continue. It has been inspiring to see the way collaborations are forming, to notice that good will is just as viral. A spirit of unity is once again beginning to emerge in this country that has been so deeply fragmented.
Another advantage in this time is that we have the opportunity to center down and become more deeply aligned with what God is saying to us. Even amidst the incredible challenges of COVID-19, I have appreciated the time to draw near to God and to be open to the way God speaks in times of transformation. I keep asking: What is cracking open? What is breaking forth? What needs to die so that something new might emerge? What important shifts need to happen in the church to bring us closer to God’s reign on this earth? What is right in front of our eyes, if only we have the eyes to see? I have done a lot of asking, a lot of deep listening and a lot of wondering. And I have come to believe that an important shift needs to happen in the life of the church.
One day, this chapter will be over. We don’t know whether it will be weeks or months. But one day, we will return to our church buildings. We will share from the same chalice without fear. We will embrace one another at the peace. We will look deeply into the eyes of those we care about. We’ll meet in groups, as we once did, to do the good work of the church!
But an important shift needs to happen, too. Have you not felt the Spirit at work in these times? Have you noticed ways we might be able to be church differently? I am personally reminded of how critical face to face connection is, even as I am grateful for online opportunities to connect. My spouse and children miss the grandparents we cannot see. I miss seeing my parishioners in person. I miss the youth in our church’s neighborhood.
But I do not want to go back to normal if that means only seeing my parishioners inside our church building. I do not want to go back to shining our light inside the building, where those outside can’t see it. I can see more clearly now how we shut ourselves off from interconnectivity when we stay in our buildings. I want us to be intentional about venturing out to be church in our neighborhoods.
What new thing is God doing in us?
I want the light that our church shines to be seen and felt in our neighborhood. I want to check on the neighbors just as I check on my parents and my parishioners. I wonder what neighbors near the church are feeling particularly isolated? Who among them is now unemployed? Who is food insecure? Are there families worn thin from balancing working from home and overseeing their children’s online school classes? Who is struggling to stay sober without AA and NA meetings? Who is emotionally fragile? Who, near the church, is longing to make a difference and doesn’t know where to start? Who has emerged from this dark night of their soul with a stronger connection to God and wants to share that faith with others? Who near us has a voice ready to sing or a mind ready to engage and learn with us? I want to go back to knock on their doors, to look into their eyes and to see what new thing God is doing among us all.
Brothers and sisters, we will soon be at the proverbial fork in the road. When we are able to return to our buildings, we can go back to business as usual or we can begin a new, less familiar path, toward balancing being church inside our buildings and also outside of them, deeply rooted in our neighborhoods and communities.
I believe it’s time for a shift in the church that starts with shining our light outside our buildings. We are learning that our buildings are not what make us church, after all! It’s the people. It’s the love of Christ and the love we share. That can be done online, but, for the sake of the world, we need to take our love and our light out into the world, too. Then we will really see what God can do among us.
When I first began our street ministry, after more than 10 years working primarily within the church building, I was overwhelmed with the reminder that God is moving all over the world, co-creating and kingdom-building. God is working through nonprofits, community leaders, everyday people and all sorts of households that aren’t necessarily coming to church on Sundays.
When the world becomes our church
I had become accustomed to thinking of God working through churches because that’s where my energy was at the time. Moving to ministry outside of the church building was an amazing, expansive wake-up call for me. I hope that when the time comes for us to look up from our Zoom meetings and online worship, we will take advantage of this time to ask ourselves, “What now? How can we continue to be church outside of the building, but more intentionally out in the world? What needs to shift?”
Meeting neighbors at an apartment complex one day, I met a grandmother on the sidewalk. She was a small woman with a big heart and despite the years etched on her face, a light shone from within her. She told me that, thanks to God, she had beaten her addiction to crack. In a sing-song rhythm and with a large smile, she gave all the glory to God. “God did it again! He did it again!” And she began swaying back and forth as she felt her own praise move through her body. She told me it was God’s strength that allowed her to stay clean and sober day after day and to be present to her daughter and granddaughter, who were standing right near her, nodding in agreement. With bright, dark, shining eyes and a huge smile, she proclaimed that God “saved her again, and again, and again.”
This was years ago, but I recall her song, her heart and her conviction as if I heard it last week. And to think, if she only shared this inside her church or in her home, I would never have heard it. It was only because I was on the street to meet the community and she was out in her community, ready to share what God was doing in her life. And in that moment, we were the two or three gathered and Christ was among us. We were church, together.
God’s light and love can go viral in our world, when we leave our buildings to engage our neighbors face to face, eye to eye, and heart to heart.
God’s light and love can go viral in our world when we seek and listen for what God is doing with others in the world, trusting that God moves outside the church, too.
God’s light and love can go viral in the world when we can share what God is doing in our lives with vulnerability, outside of our church buildings.
God’s light and love can go viral in the world when the world becomes our church, and when the Good News springs up from our voices like water from parched earth.
God is inviting us into a shift.
God is inviting us to pay attention to all the possibilities at the fork in the road.
God is inviting us to go viral.
Click here for a list of Covid-19 resources on ECF Vital Practices.
The Rev. Dr. Chantal Morales McKinney is passionate about creating the scaffolding for people and churches to venture out into their neighborhoods and the world for the sake of mutual mission and to be Christ in community. Her work with others on the streets of Southside Winston-Salem, NC have led to the development of Christ’s Beloved Community/Comunidad Amada de Cristo, a bilingual and multicultural Episcopal and Lutheran church. She uses Asset Based Community Development to empower people and create partnerships. In addition to being the Mission Developer at CBC, she enjoys speaking about mission at conferences and consulting when time allows. She is married to Bryson and they have two rambunctious boys and a precious baby girl.
- A Blueprint for Change, by Birdie Blake-Reid as told to Nancy Davidge, Vestry Papers, March 2014
- Jesus Was Right There, in the Bounce House, by Bob Leopold, ECF Vital Practices blog, October 3, 2013
- Feeding the Community by Renee McKenzie, ECF Vital Practices blog, June 6, 2017
- Redefining Outreach by Linda Buskirk, ECF Vital Practices blog, May 12, 2018